Prioritize Nature in Asia-Pacific’s COVID-19 Recovery

Throughout Asia and the Pacific, people rely on natural resources to feed their families.
Throughout Asia and the Pacific, people rely on natural resources to feed their families.

By Silvia Cardascia, Suzanne Robertson, Qingfeng Zhang

Countries in Asia and the Pacific region depend on natural resources for jobs, livelihood, health and well-being. We need to protect these valuable resources as we emerge from the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a wake-up call for reinforcing the nexus between humans, animals, and nature. The preservation of nature has emerged as a critical pathway for transitioning to growing the economy in a more resilient and sustainable way.

Countries in Asia and the Pacific region are highly dependent on natural resources, such as water, fisheries, forests, agricultural lands, and healthy soils, for sustaining their socio-economic development. Employment and revenue generation from natural capital are also significant, supporting millions of jobs and livelihoods.

Globally, the People’s Republic of China has the largest absolute amount of GDP in nature-dependent sectors, amounting to $2.7 trillion. Most reliant on these natural resources for their livelihood are rural dwellers. Yet the flow of benefits is limited, and rural poverty persists. Despite the remarkable achievement of eradicating extreme poverty by the government, about 600 million people still live below the poverty line. Two thirds of them live in rural provinces.

These conditions are not unique to the People’s Republic of China. Rural areas in other Asia-Pacific countries are also experiencing rural poverty, compounded by severe natural capital decline, biodiversity loss, land use change, natural resource overexploitation, pollution and water security issues. Unsustainable agricultural practices, inadequate management of wastewater and solid waste are among the root causes of environmental degradation. The business case for valuing and investing in nature remains poorly framed and misunderstood.

Prompt action is needed to protect the health of ecosystem services, while promoting development models that look beyond economic growth. Nature can be the strongest ally in the fight against climate change and social inequalities. These issues need to be tackled together for countries to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and their obligations under the Paris Agreements.

Achieving the international targets can be supported with a nature-positive recovery. This means ensuring that nature is an integral component of investment and fiscal policy decisions in the post-pandemic economic recovery. Renewed emphasis should be given to nature-based solutions. These are a combination of practices and policy interventions to protect and restore natural ecosystems, providing ecological and socio-economic co-benefits for nature and people.

Investing in nature-based solutions will promote water security, integrated natural resources management, climate resilience, sustainable agriculture and healthy diets.  Nature-based solutions are even more important in poor rural areas, in order to promote equitable green development, reduce the wealth gap and address the urban-rural divide.

Enhancing readiness and resilience calls for immediate action, and 2021 will be crucial for both nature and climate. The 15th United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity will take place in the People’s Republic of China and the 26th Conference on the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will be held in the United Kingdom. A positive outcome at both events can help scale up actions and investment needed to unlock sustainable business opportunities. This is particularly relevant for the People’s Republic of China to meet its ambitious goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2060.

Green businesses will be essential to making the post-pandemic transformation a reality.

Five key policy recommendations can help inform the design of comprehensive and transformative nature-positive approaches to recovery from COVID-19 in the Asia and Pacific region.

First, prioritize investments in nature-based solutions to protect natural capital through a basin-wide approach. This will create ecological, socio-economic co-benefits for the rural-urban economy. To fulfil this endeavor, ADB has conceptualized the Natural Capital Lab, which will serve as a regional platform to scale up natural capital investments and build a marketplace for nature-positive recovery with sustained and localized impacts on the ground.

Second, enhance tools, performance-based metrics and innovative technologies to capture the value of ecosystem services as assets. The Gross Ecosystem Product was developed in the PRC as a standard measure to calculate the aggregate value of ecosystem services both in biophysical and monetary terms. These metrics can provide decision makers with scientific evidence of the monetary value of nature, contributing to better planning at all levels, with an incremental step approach.

Third, strengthen regulatory frameworks, policy instruments and voluntary-based approaches to enable ecological protection and high-quality green development. Eco-compensation, payment for ecosystem services and regulatory frameworks can be scaled up to improve integrated river basin management and market-based incentives to generate ecological and social co-benefits.

Fourth, encourage private investment into natural capital. Public finance alone will not be enough to realize systemic change at scale. Sustainable investing and blended finance mechanisms can be a vehicle to mobilize private finance and leverage public spending for nature conservation, restoration and transition projects.

Fifth, programmatic river-basin approaches, such as those promoted in the Yellow and Yangtze river basins, will help restore and enhance watershed ecological security, by addressing conflicting and competing demands for natural resources from all users, and reducing the resulting degradation of ecosystems.

To conclude, natural capital investment opportunities need to be identified and integrated into large development programs and innovative pilot projects for improving agriculture production, comprehensive river basin management and biodiversity conservation. Negative shocks, such as COVID-19, are going to be more of the norm, with multiple climate tipping points and exacerbation of social, biological and environmental stresses.

Taking the pandemic as an opportunity born out of necessity, future investments must be built on a solid social foundation and under a more robust ecological ceiling. Such an approach can provide a safer space to respect our planetary boundaries and leave no one behind.